When we use the phrase “Love Like Jesus,” we assume some specific characteristics about the way Jesus loved that are worth emulating. One that has impacted me tremendously shows up in the last chapter of John’s gospel. It’s a passage most believers are familiar with, yet most have also missed an essential point in the story—mostly because it doesn’t translate into English.
The incident described happened after the crucifixion and the resurrection. Peter, no doubt disgusted and disappointed with himself for his denial of Jesus three times after he swore he would die rather than let Jesus be taken, had left the ministry to which Jesus called him and gone back to his previous vocation of fishing.
I probably don’t need to repeat all the details. When Peter came back after a night of fishing, he and the others with him found Jesus waiting for them on shore, fixing a meal. After dinner, Jesus engaged Peter in a conversation. “Do you love me more than these?” Jesus asked.
He might have been referring to the fish, but he also might well have been jabbing Peter a little for his comment before the crucifixion, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” (Matthew 26:33) It’s worth noting that Peter wasn’t alone in giving up on his calling. Thomas, Nathanael, James, John and two other disciples were there with him at that meal. (John 21:2-3) However, the others hadn’t denied Jesus after swearing their commitment to die for him. No doubt Peter’s answer had a little embarrassment behind it. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” he stammered. Jesus responded with, “Feed my lambs.”
How much embarrassment Peter felt at the question is obscured by the translation. The English text simply relates that Jesus repeated the question twice more, getting essentially the same answer each time, but noting that the third time Jesus asked, Peter was “hurt.” (verse 17) Lost in the translation is a beautiful picture of the expectation of Christ-like love and the commitment inherent in loving like Jesus.
There are four different words used in first century Greek, three of which are used in the New Testament. Two of them occur in this text. The first time Jesus asked, he used the word agape, which is the most perfect kind of love. It refers to a reasoned decision to act in the best interest of another, without regard to whether you get anything back from that person or not. What makes agape love so powerful is that it does not depend on how we are feeling at the moment. Even when we don’t feel like loving someone, we still decide to act in love anyway.
When Peter answered Jesus, however, he did not use the same word. Instead he used the word philos. Often translated “brotherly love,” philos denoted a strong emotional connection, what Archbishop Trent, in Synonyms of the New Testament, called a “passionate warmth of affection.” Characterized by passion or emotion, philos was often considered in the ancient world to be the highest form of love, primarily because of the intensity of the emotion associated with it, not unlike the kind of emotional intensity people experience when they “fall in love.”
The problem with this kind of love, however, was its instability. Unlike agape, which is an act of will, philos is highly emotional. Like all emotions, it comes and goes according to circumstance. It is unpredictable and unstable.
Peter’s earlier experience demonstrates the problem with love primarily built on philos as a foundation instead of agape. When he swore that he would never deny Jesus, but would instead die for him, Peter felt great passion behind what he said. At the time he meant it. However, at Jesus’ trial, when the pressure was on and admitting that he was a disciple might actually have cost him his life, the passion disappeared and Peter denied Jesus. Now, in response to the question, “Peter, do you love me (agape)?” Peter had to admit that he did not. He loved Jesus (philos), but that kind of love had proven to not be enough. It failed him in the crisis.
The second time Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” he used the same word (agape) and got the same response. The really significant part of this passage is in the third time Jesus asked. This time he changed the question. Jesus used the word philos. Peter was hurt, not because Jesus asked three times, but because the third time, Jesus lowered the expectation. It was as though Jesus said, “Okay, is that really the best you’ve got?”
We should not miss how important that is. Jesus essentially said, “Peter, if that’s the best you are capable of, then I’ll take it. Commit to what you can, return to the ministry for which I’ve prepared you, that is, feeding my sheep, and I’ll take it from there.” In other words, the love of Jesus never asks of us anything we cannot actually do. He takes whatever we can give him and he turns it into something greater than our own capacity could ever produce.
Jesus finished the conversation with an interesting, if odd, prediction. “When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (verse 18) The disciples understood these words to indicate the kind of death Peter would die to glorify Christ. In other words, in the past, Peter had denied Jesus rather than die. But Jesus would take what Peter had to offer, with all his weakness and flaws, and would use it to bring growth so that in time, Peter would be able to actually give his life if that were necessary. The love of Jesus for Peter would be characterized by two very important traits:
1) Jesus accepted Peter as he was without any judgment directed at his weakness.
2) Jesus saw Peter for what he could become, not what he was.
Significantly, the next time we see Peter, he is standing in the middle of the temple courtyard, boldly preaching right under the noses of the very religious leaders he had been afraid of. The practical love Jesus had shown in accepting him as he was and seeing, even expecting, what he could become, was truly transformational.
Love One Another
What would happen if we began to consciously practice the same two characteristics of love in our relationships with our spouse, family and friends? Could it be that this is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he commanded us to love one another? Part of the list of love’s characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13 is, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” (verse 7) That is exactly what Jesus did with Peter, which means we should practice doing that with each other.